December Bass

With a contract extension on my usual “up until Thanksgiving” fall fishing season, Christmas came early for me and other stalwart surfcasters.

December 20, 2006: I have a contract with Natalie (the “BW” as in Beautiful Wife). Even though the official New York striped bass season is April 15 to Dec. 15, my pact with her stipulates I won’t even think about surf fishing until Labor Day — and I will quit by Thanksgiving. In return, she promises not to hassle me the entire fall season — no matter how many hours, days, or nights I spend on the beach. Most years, we both come real close to keeping our bargain, and I hang up my rods and reels by the time we sit down to turkey and cranberry sauce. But this fall, Montauk bass fishing in the surf was a mysteriously disappointing “rat-fest” of tiny stripers, some hardly bigger than the lures we were tossing. The fall run either hadn’t started or wasn’t going to happen.

Then came a fish call on the last day of November from Jack Yee, resident chronicler and paparazzo of the Montauk surfcasting scene. By all reports, Nov. 30 was a classic, sunup-to-sundown, rip-roaring, bird-diving, fish-jumping, water-churning blitz of big stripers and bluefish practically everywhere along the south shore of eastern Long Island from Montauk to Moriches.

In Montauk, teen-size bass, and plenty of 20-pounders, were mixed in with schoolies and gorilla blues. A convoy of vehicles with about 100 anglers chased them in the sand from Dead Man’s Cove to Amagansett. One 51-inch, 40-pound bass was taken at Hither Hills before first light.

Of course, I was sitting in my office instead of on the beach for a day that will prove to be legendary. But on Dec. 1, the BW had a “working-at-home” day filled with e-mail correspondence and teleconferences, so it wasn’t hard for me to get a fishing pass to get in on this late-season blitz. Heck, I don’t think I had to ask, “Please, Natalie?” more than a dozen times. Piece of cake.

At dawn, the wind was already up in double figures and the south-facing beaches were churned foamy with whitewater. A southwester was forecast to hit full on by late afternoon. Temperatures were expected to plummet to something more seasonal once the blow moved through. Tick tock. Above the roar of the pounding surf, I could hear the Fat Lady clearing her throat in the background.

At first light, I headed east to the scene of the prior day’s action, hoping for a repeat performance. But it was not to be. Fishermen I met said, “Oh. You weren’t here yesterday?” Then they walked away with pity in their eyes.

The beaches north and south of the Montauk Lighthouse, the area surfcasters like to call Mecca, were virtually deserted except for one local sharpie. For an hour, I was into fish, but they were all rats: none bigger than 20 inches. Though I hated to violate the cardinal rule that says “Never leave fish to find fish,” I was not about to waste my December pass on stripers in diapers.

I needed to find a gang fight, a melee, a slugfest of fish. So I headed west looking for one.

Near Indian Wells Beach, I found what I was searching for. Gulls and gannets were patrolling the outer bar and now and then darted inside to the wash. When the birds came in close, I attacked.

The wind had picked up some and the tide was steadily advancing. I stayed with the east-flying birds, stopping to cast now and then without any success. A few other trucks had joined the chase now. By the time we got to Napeague State Park, a few fish were landed: some decent-sized bluefish and, disappointingly, a few ratty, undersized stripers. I bolted ahead of the pack and the birds, hoping  I’d find a cut in the sandbar where the fish might sneak within range.

I found my spot and began hurling my lure as far as I could, wondering if my health insurance covered rotator cuff surgery in the off-season. The water was up to my thighs with waves swelling and breaking at chest level as the current swept hard from right to left. But the water was clean, not yet churned with sand or grass, and amazingly warm for December.

And then I got the hit.

It came in the frothy trough between the outer and inner sandbars, not more than 20 yards away. If there were an audio track, the sound would have been like the snap of a whip: “Crack!”

No little nibble on the rod tip the way a striper can sometimes investigate your lure; no waiting breathlessly for the fish to swallow the line before leaning back to set the hook. No sir. This was an all-in assault on my lure that jerked my pole down almost parallel to the water and 45 degrees to my left. The hook was set at the bite and the contest was on.

I recovered from my surprise with a sharp upper-body thrust to get my rod tip vertical and create an angle that would relieve the stress on the fishing line. I guessed I was onto a gorilla bluefish, but my reel’s drag was set tight and the fish protested with a splash that told me how wrong I was. The characteristic broad fantail of a bass arched out of the water and slapped down on the white foam in a bodily statement of protest.

The fish made a sharp turn for the deep water, but I gave it absolutely no room to run. In response, the fish fought convulsively to free itself. When it raised its head to shake the hook, I had little doubt that I was onto a keeper of substantial weight. The idea was not to give the fish any leverage on the inner bar with the slightest slack in the line. I didn’t want to lose this striper, my first ever in December.

I kept my rod tip high, began to walk backward to the beach, and I picked up line as I went. I didn’t approach the fish until I had it halfway out of the water and then rushed to haul it up on the sand by the gill plate. This striper measured out at slightly more than 37 inches and weighed a hefty 18 pounds. It had inhaled my lure and the hook was set firmly in its lower jaw. In its belly were three — three! — swallowed-whole, eight-inch herring. What a glutton.

My first-ever December bass seemed a perfect season ender, wouldn’t you say? Not quite.

On into the following week, the weather remained unusually benign. Late afternoon on Dec. 5, I found myself atop a sand dune in Westhampton Beach contemplating a couple of acres of gannets and gulls diving over the sandbar just beyond casting range.

I’ve been surfcasting for 30-some-odd years and, except for a couple of field trips to Cape Cod and the Outer Banks in North Carolina, I have confined my fishing to the East End beaches between Mecca and Wainscott. In the past, I’ve never had a need to venture elsewhere. But with my December fishing pass, and the big bait rapidly moving west along the south shore, I remained in hot pursuit of stripers when I should have been Christmas shopping.

My first cast was with the crippled herring lure still hanging on my line since the action in Napeague on Friday. Bang! The hit felt like I hooked a bag of cement; it was stealthy and without any fanfare. Moving the fish quickly through the gentle breakers, I beached a 33-inch, 15-pound bass.

If nothing else, my day was complete with a keeper for the dinner table. But the top action was too spectacular to ignore so I switched to a Yo Zuri pencil popper. Sure enough, as soon as I slowed down the lure, I nailed another bass, all splashy and showy. Another keeper. Back to the sea it went. And then another, caught and released.

Every fisherman on the beach got well that afternoon. I had five stripers in the brief but intense blitz that lasted barely 30 minutes. I saw a couple of 20-plus bass landed. At one point, looking left and right, I saw more than 20 sticks all bent simultaneously with keeper bass. And virtually every surfcaster wore the same smirk, born of the thought: “I can’t believe we are into this kind of fishing in December!”

As quickly as they came, the fish moved down the beach to the east and offshore again. I stuck around and cast for another 20 minutes and nailed a couple of almost-legal schoolies, calling it a day to a most dramatic sunset sinking into the ocean simultaneously with a full hunter’s moon rising above Great South Bay.

Thus the curtain officially descended. It was a December to remember in which Christmas came early for me and many other stalwart surfcasters. Question is: would I ever get that contract extension again. Stay tuned.

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